Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy

Illustration by Craig Stephens (2017)
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Two months ago Qiushi, the central “theory” journal of the Communist Party of China, published a speech originally given by Xi Jinping several days after he was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. The speech is Xi’s attempt to answer questions that are smack-dab in the center of the Party’s current problems: why does the Communist Party exist? What is ‘socialist’ about socialism with Chinese characteristics? What should the Party’s attitude towards its Maoist history be? Is China in an ideological competition with the Western world, or not?

The minute I read it, I realized it needed to be translated into English.Yesterday Palladium Magazine published my translation of the speech and an introduction I wrote to contextualize it.  From my introduction to the piece:

One of the most striking aspects of this speech is the language Xi Jinping invokes: party members must have “faith” (xìnyǎng) in the eventual victory of socialism; proper communists must be “devout” (qiánchéng) in their work; and Party members must be prepared to “sacrifice” (xīshēng) everything, up to their own blood, for revolutionary “ideals that reach higher than heaven” (gémìng lǐxiǎng gāo yú tiān). 

Behind this religiously charged language is a man deeply worried that the cadres of his generation are not prepared to make the sort of sacrifices their parents and grandparents did for China’s revolutionary cause. Xi’s verdict is that such people do not have enough faith in the “eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism.” Their “views lack a firm grounding in historical materialism,” leading them to doubt that “socialism is bound to win.” This has practical consequences. The cadre without communist convictions will act “hedonistically” and “self-interestedly.” Worst of all, he might begin to believe “false arguments that we should abandon socialism” altogether. 

For Xi, this would be a grave betrayal of the Party’s heritage. The Communist Party of China is tasked with “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism” whose economic and technological prowess will give it “the dominant position” in world affairs. And though Xi asserts that this is inevitable, “the road will be tortuous.” Party members must fiercely fend off ideological attacks on socialism with Chinese characteristics. The most pressing ideological problems identified in this speech are two ‘false arguments:’ First, that the mass death, cruelty, and poverty of Maoist China undermines the credibility of the Party leadership today, and second, that socialism with Chinese characteristics is not really socialism at all. 

More significant than Xi’s use of Marxist theory to justify any particular policy is his conviction that he leads an ideological-political system distinct from that of the capitalist world. Threats to this system are not framed in military or economic terms, but ideological ones. The Soviet Union fell, he declares, “because ideological competition is fierce.” If the faith of its cadres remains fervent, Xi believes his Party will succeed where the Soviet Union could not.  [2]

I encourage you to go and read the full thing. Based off of reactions on twitter, this has been an eye opening document for many. It was less eye opening for me, for I am about halfway through Xi Jinping’s two-volume Governance of China, and he repeats many of the same themes throughout that work. The difference is though is that in Governance these ideas are spread about his speeches a bit haphazardly–a paragraph here, a paragraph there, and then another paragraph five pages down the line. They are also often translated in a way which downplays the explicitly Maoist and Stalinist terminology that Xi is fond of using. This speech, in contrast, is a very concentrated dose of Xi’s communist convictions.

One thing which I did not emphasize in the introduction I typed up, but probably should have, is the intended audience for this document. The original speech was given behind closed doors to the Central Committee; this version, which may or may not be the same as the original, was published in the Party’s main theory journal. The average Chinese does not read Qiushi. Cadres read Qiushi. This speech is not intended to persuade the masses but to instruct and guide Party leadership. One practical consequence of this is that some passages are difficult and boring to read. Xi slips easily into sloganeering, replacing coherent thought with a stream of sloganized summaries of policy platforms and institutional arrangements of China’s party-state. I think Timothy Heath has offered the clearest explanation for why the Party leadership does this when they speak:

[In the Chinese theory system there are many] specialized concepts designed specifically to drive policy on very specific issues. For example, “socialist harmonious society.” There’s a major strategic concept. It is a very important term that the Chinese identified as an ideal that had the Marxist vetting and was grounded in Marxist theory needed to­­­­­ allow their bureaucrats to develop policy to address social welfare issues: healthcare, retirement, education. That’s all wrapped up in this word ‘socialist harmonious society.’ It is designed primarily for bureaucrats, officials and decision makers. It is not really designed to mobilize the people. In fact most people ridicule, deride, and make fun of these archaic sounding Marxist concepts. But here is the thing: the Communist Party does not really care all that much. What they really care about is that their officials get it. That they understand what to do with these concepts, how to develop them into policies, and how to implement them. That is really where a lot of the CPC’s energy is focused on today. Informing the bureaucratic elite instead of mobilizing the entire people.[3]

When Xi speaks to non-Party audiences, especially foreign ones, he goes lighter on the slogans and heavier on allusions to classical sources. (I also suppose you will not hear Xi talking much at Davos about the ultimate defeat of the capitalist system either!)

There is still a lot to be done in this space. In the future I hope to tie together the things you read in this speech with other things Xi has said in interviews, other speeches, and other documents of note. Nor is Xi alone in this story—the importance of China’s revolutionary heritage matters to many of the Party’s current leaders. By and large it was their parents who made revolutionary China possible. It is naive to think that this has no bearing on their children’s ideological commitments today.

If you found this post on China’s political ideology useful, you might also find the posts “Where is the Communism in the Communist Party of China?” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] 习近平 [Xi Jinping], “关于坚持与发展中国特色社会主义的几个问题 [Concerning Some Issues in Upholding and Developing Socialism with Chinese Characteristics],” Qiushi, (1 April 2019)

[2] Tanner Greer, trans. and introduction, “Xi Jinping In Translation: China’s Guiding Ideology,” Palladium Magazine (31 May 2019)

[3] Timothy Heath, “China’s New Governing Party Paradigm,” speech at the USC U.S.-China Institute,” youtube video (uploaded 19 Feb 2015).

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It is all good and dandy. But the reality will be the harshest judge. The problem is that socialist countries have always played with a handicap. Staring from total rubble and with less developed economies to start with, compared with the West. And the US has pretty much blockaded all the socialist countries which ended up relying solely on their wits to develop.

Now the genie is out of the bottle and there is quite a catch up that China has done for instance. At hart the play will be between the structure of the Chinese enterprise and its ability do innovate, develop, etc in an efficient way, while maintaining an ownership structure more distributed, but not necessarily via stocks.

If China continues to pour money in R&D greatly while continuing to acquire by any means knowledge and know how, especially keeping a cutting edge military and has a network for economic intercourse, the socialism with Chinese characteristics might survive the attacks of US (socio-cultural, economic, ideological, and military).

I read Xi's speech. He's delusional and dangerous. The speech is full of contradictory concepts such as democracy and communisn. His denial or unawareness of human nature is especially alarming as he excuses the early phases of Chinese socialism's millions of deaths as 'necessary'. I have talked to people from China. They despise communism. The same way the HK people resent it.

Anonymous above was prophetic. HK tried to rebel. People does not like the regime but it is working. Xi wants "Faith" – isn't it interesting?

Seems like the comments above me do not understand neither Chinese History, World History, or Human Nature. Nor do they understand what Xi is talking about. Anyways, on to the post itself, I have to thank you for translating this piece. It was really interesting to see Xi at its peak. Let's see what China has in store for 2020, 2025, 2049, and beyond. We are witnessing a historic era, critical for the development of a new communism that surpasses old dogmatic beliefs and that can help other countries find their own guiding ideology that mixes their local characteristics with Marxism or whatever they find necessary.

There has been a long-standing debate in the movement as to what was the leading principle of legalism, whether it is Shi (power or authority), Fa (law or regulation) or Shu (the methodology of making friends and influencing people in politics). There is an interesting agreement between the Legalists and the Daoists when it comes to the best means of ruling. According to the both, the policy ought to be one of doing nothing, yet with everything being done, the principle of Wui Wei or "effortless action". The Legalists, however, stress the links between notions of propriety and the economic conditions of the time, and doubt whether moral education would bring about positive social change unless the economic context are appropriate. Zhuxi argues that much of the government in China has followed the path of the interests of the rulers, rather than being founded on knowledge of how the state really ought to be run, its Li (rational principle). The political implications of this view are interesting, since they imply that there must be a Li of politics which will enable the state to be prosperous and harmonious. The primary function of folklore is not the search for truth but the preparation of future generations to deal with the ethical and political incertitude of life and that modern education must reclaim the human focus of ancient wisdom. As Marx put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."